Anyone who’s sick of the alternative-milk hype can chalk up FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb’s decree on the fancy-café staple as a big win. In Gottlieb’s statement at the Politico Pro Summit on Tuesday, plant-based milk products like almond milk, soy milk, and even their less hyped cousin tiger-nut milk will no longer be able to market themselves as “milk.”
His rationale? “An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”
The US dairy industry has been on a quest to reclaim milk for its own, as exemplified by a bill introduced in 2017 by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and a recent letter signed by 32 Congress members urging the FDA to clamp down on the appropriation of the word “milk.” Their concern stems from the fact that animal milk sales have declined in recent years while sales of plant-based milks have soared. The dairy industry is frustrated, National Milk Producers Federation spokesperson Chris Galen tells Inverse, because the word “milk” is being used as a marketing phrase when it’s in fact defined by the FDA according to scientific criteria that nuts simply can’t fulfill.
“The definition of milk is clearly spelled out in federal regulations,” Galen tells Inverse. “It’s defined as the lactation of an animal. So obviously if you’re making a handful of nuts or seeds or grains into something that resembles milk, you could perhaps call it ‘imitation milk’, but you can’t actually call it ‘milk’.”
At the summit, Plant Based Foods Association executive director Michele Simon stated her organization would continue to make its case for plant-based milks, noting that Gottlieb’s statement is “part of an ongoing conversation.” But a deep, weird dive into the definition of “milk” makes it unclear how that conversation will even proceed.
What Is ‘Milk’, Anyway?
Gayle’s position at the NMPF puts him firmly on the “nuts-can’t-be-milked” side of this debate, but his argument is sound: The FDA’s 2017 Pasteurized Milk Ordinance painstakingly defines what constitutes milks from a variety of animals, from goats to camels. Each definition has a similar backbone but differs slightly; for instance, the definition of Item H, Camel Milk, reads:
Camel milk is the normal lacteal secretion practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one (1) or more healthy camels. Camel milk shall be produced according to the sanitary standards of this Ordinance. The word “milk” shall be interpreted to include camel milk.
Key to all of the FDA’s definitions of milk is, crucially, that milk has to be secreted from the mammary gland of some type of animal. Every definition of a “milk” in this document (except for the definition of buttermilk, defined as a “fluid product’”) involves the idea that milk has to be lactated. Some argue that this definition actually makes the use of the word “milk” by plant-based milk manufacturers illegal.
Nuts, per Gottlieb’s point, don’t have mammary glands.
Animal Milk’s “Nutritional Halo”
But it isn’t the definition of “milk” that Galen and the Congress letter-writers are hung up on. They’re more angry about what the word “milk” promises. From a nutritional standpoint, they argue, some plant-based milks can’t fulfill the promises of animal-based ones:
“The term ‘milk’ conveys a ‘nutritional halo,’ or a product benefits halo that of course the imitators taking nuts and seeds and making them appear like milk want to capitalize on,” Gayle says.
On a per-serving basis, milk’s “nutritional halo” generally suggests roughly 8 grams of protein, between 300 and 400 grams of potassium, and a certain percentages of vitamins and minerals that vary wildly by brand.
A rough comparison between Horizon cow’s milk and Almond Breeze almond milk suggests how the two products can differ. Almond Breeze, for instance, has one gram of protein and 170 grams of potassium, but it matches Horizon milk’s percentage of vitamin D (25%) and surpasses its amount of calcium. This is not to say that one is healthier than the other — simply that they’re different enough that it’s fair to argue they shouldn’t both be categorized as “milk.”
The Vitamin Caveat
Where the two products might be similar is that they are both subject to some vitamin-doctoring. Both plant-based milks and animal milks are often supplemented with vitamin A and vitamin D2, which Galen and the Congress letter-writers cite as a definitive part of milk’s identity. But these two vitamins are FDA approved as an additive in both animal milk and plant-based milk.
In July 2016, FDA approved an increase to the amount of vitamin D that may be added as an optional ingredient to milk, and approved the addition of vitamin D to beverages made from edible plants intended as milk alternatives, such as beverages made from soy, almond, and coconut… Vitamin D was already authorized for use in soy beverages, but today’s approval increases the authorized amount for such beverages that are intended as milk alternatives.
This regulation, which came into effect on July 8, 2016, nearly doubled the amount of vitamin D that could be added to these plant-based milk alternatives as well as to animal-based milk. So, natural levels of vitamins may not be a great way to define milk, since this seems very fluid to change.
Would a milk by any other name taste as sweet? For Gayle and supporters of the NMPF, taking back the word “milk” seems to be synonymous with reclaiming animal milk’s dominance of the milk industry. They can always fall back upon the simple fact that you can’t milk an almond, but whether consumers actually care what their plant-based beverages are called remains to be seen. At the summit, Simon made her position clear: “The consumer is already making their choice so we don’t even care about this stupid fight over labeling.”
As officials continue to argue semantics, it might be time to start doing so ourselves. Which new name sounds most appetizing: almond juice, almond drink, or almond beverage?